Temps Demand a New Deal
Reform or Revolution?
For unions, the soaring use of temps raises some vexing questions. How, for instance, do you organize ever-mobile temp workers who are employed by several agencies and who move among dozens of job sites in a single year? Are temps best served by a union of their own that can bargain with local and national temp agencies, or by allying themselves, shop by shop, with their permanent jobmates? Should unions try to reform the temp industry, compete with it or combat its very existence?
Around the country, different answers are emerging, yielding varying degrees of success. Throughout Rhode Island, temp companies line inner-city neighborhoods "on almost every corner, like liquor stores," says Mario Bueno, program coordinator for the United Workers Committee, part of a statewide United Campaign for Permanent Jobs, involving unions, churches and community groups. Low-wage temps working on factory assembly lines (who must pay $15-$20 a week for company buses to outlying factories) "are doing the exact same work they always did as permanents," says Bueno, and they "are not filling in for anybody." Yet many persist for years in manual "temp" jobs without healthcare (or even access to the company microwave in the lunchroom), under the impression they will eventually be hired as permanent workers. Temps from textile mills, jewelry factories and canning companies have used public hearings and direct actions to pressure Rhode Island to pass legislation requiring temp agencies to disclose job descriptions, pay rates and work schedules. The United Campaign also pushed (unsuccessfully) for rules limiting prohibitive "conversion fees" that temp firms charge client companies when they want to hire one of their workers for a permanent job.
In Silicon Valley, with a temp-labor boom "going on against the backdrop of prosperity," Amy Dean of the South Bay Labor Council created the multipurpose Working Partnerships USA that Cornejo stumbled upon, which has garnered much national press attention. Instead of organizing temps into a union, the council tapped foundation funding to set up Working Partnerships, which emphasizes tangibles like a temp-worker healthcare plan with income-adjusted premiums and a type of temp-worker hiring hall. "Our goal is not to build Temporary Workers of the World Unite," says Dean, who three years ago was picked by AFL-CIO president John Sweeney to head a committee on the future of the labor movement. "When you ask people why they want to join this organization, they don't say, So I can go in the street and advocate for better conditions. They say, I want portable benefits, I want a job."
So, following in the footsteps of a mid-nineties effort by Bay Area temps and the Industrial Workers of the World to create a worker-owned temp agency, Working Partnerships has launched a nonprofit "socially responsible" staffing firm that aims to give temps a bigger slice of the pie and to act as a role model for how competing agencies should treat their workers. So far it's been tough going: While 150 workers have enrolled in the service, many need additional training; the agency currently has just three to five temps working on any given day and pays them a minimum wage of $10 an hour, says Lisa Hoyos of Working Partnerships' staffing service. The agency is targeting large union firms, public agencies and small private-sector companies as job-placement clients. The ultimate goal, says Hoyos, is to be a self-sustaining firm providing pensions and benefits to all its temps. The nonprofit agency is part of a broader strategy to create a membership organization with benefits and other education and training opportunities, says Dean, who plans a public relations campaign via radio, print and the Internet to draw temps from throughout the region. Working Partnerships will then try to cajole area temp agencies to abide voluntarily by a code of conduct.
In New Jersey a similar code-of-conduct campaign has benefited from low unemployment rates, as temp agencies are "scrambling to get bodies," says Barrie Peterson, employment specialist with the nonprofit United Labor Agency of Bergen County, which runs the Bergen Employment Action Project's Temp Worker Alliance. So far thirty-two New Jersey temp companies, mostly small to mid-size firms that "want to distinguish themselves as a high-practice agency," have signed the project's fair-conduct code, says Peterson. The project publishes a consumer guide listing "best practice" temp agencies that abide by the code, a strategy to promote more labor-friendly firms and to help temps shop around for better treatment.
But ultimately such voluntarism must be backed by concrete temp-worker power, says SUNY's George Gonos. "The code of conduct means nothing on paper unless you organize.... If you can't move significant numbers of temp workers from one agency to another because the second agency is adhering to your code, you have no market power whatsoever. The whole strategy from time immemorial has to be about power, control over the labor market."